How the Copa América changed Lionel Messi forever

Gigatonnes of pressure fell on Lionel Messi and, on a grueling night in June 2016, sent the world’s most galactic athlete plummeting to Earth. Nerves and stress had dogged him throughout a hectic Copa América final. They captured it in a penalty shootout, then smashed it as the Chileans celebrated and the Argentine vitriol flew. His helpless body collapsed. His face twisted in pain. Guilt overwhelmed him, tears flowed and a vicious cycle accelerated again.

This was the Messi-Argentina story for more than a decade.

It was the devastating pattern that bound him to his country and destroyed their all-consuming dream.

The Argentines would curse him and question him: Did he care about the national team? Why did he look so unenthusiastic? Why would he always collapse for the Albiceleste, when he wore white and sky blue?

Messi, in turn, would suffer. He would break down, then cry, then vomit before games, then break down again. He failed in 2010. He failed in 2011. He “was destroyed”, as his teammate Angel Di Maria said, after failing at the 2014 World Cup. At the 2016 Copa América, he succumbed . A third consecutive defeat in a major final shattered his psyche. “It’s over,” he told reporters late at night in New Jersey. “The national team is over for me.”

He finally returned for the 2018 World Cup. But there, on the biggest stage of all, he faded again. There, every four years, he would carry an unbearable burden. There, with billions of children waiting, he would tell the same sad story to the whole world. Each World Cup has become a new chapter; put together, an anguished tale flowed – until another tournament changed it forever.

It was the Copa América – the quadrennial South American championship, the 48th edition of which begins next week here in the United States – that freed Messi in 2021 and paved his way to football’s pinnacle.

After 28 barren years, Argentina finally conquered Brazil; and Messi heads into the 2022 World Cup, his eventual crowning achievement, with “peace of mind”.

“The Copa América changed his life,” longtime teammate and friend Sergio Agüero told ESPN as Messi dazzled in Qatar. “It gave him life. After the Copa América, he was happy with the national team again, like when we were with the under-20s. He lived with criticism and lost finals for a long time. The Copa América was liberating.

Messi was born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, but trained and exalted in Barcelona, ​​Spain, 6,500 miles and many societal echelons from home.

Distance, geographical and cultural, shaped its complicated relationship with Argentina. On lonely Catalan nights, as a homesick teenager, he longed for the comfort of Rosario; and he would aspire to represent his country; he wanted, “more than anyone”, he would say later, “to win a title with the national team”. But as he grew from fiercely shy prodigy to peerless phenomenon, his country became skeptical of his otherness.

The Argentines were amazed by his extraterrestrial talent; but they have been reluctant to make comparisons with Diego Maradona, their World Cup-winning god. Maradona was relevant, a pipe who had risen from poverty to greatness, with flaws and brash charm. Messi, on the other hand, seemed unknowable. He played exquisitely but without passion. “He is more Barcelona than Argentinian,” lamented an expert.

They all celebrated his accolades at Barcelona, ​​his Champions League titles, his marvelous goals and his Ballon d’Or; but then they asked: What has he done for Argentina?

They placed their expectations on his fine shoulders; and when he found it difficult to respond, the criticism grew out of control.

It first stung Messi during the 2010 World Cup. It overwhelmed him a year later, during a home Copa América. In a second consecutive group stage draw, two hours north of his childhood home, fans whistled and booed. After a quarterfinal loss to Uruguay, Messi’s 16th consecutive international match without a goal, they howled. They called him foreign and a “failure.” And their words hurt.

The accusation that he “didn’t care about the national team”, Messi would later say, “disturbed me and made me very angry”.

All of this exacerbated the pressure and anxiety, which seemed to paralyze him every time he stepped onto the international stage.

“He suffered more than anyone,” Agüero said in a recent documentary. “He would go to his room and lock himself in alone, while the rest of us ate dinner.”

Messi emerged for the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, but declined in the round of 16. He scored four goals in the 2015 Copa América, but, battered and bruised by Chile, he remained silent in the final, which Argentina lost on penalties. The following summer, in a one-off Copa América Centenario in the United States, after another 0–0 final match, in another shootout against Chile, Messi missed his penalty, then left the national team .

“It’s not for me,” he said.

The television commentators clearly felt the same way. “It’s obviously a psychological problem,” one said. “He won everything except here,” added another. “He can’t stand it.”

Others simply told him: “Go back to Barcelona.”

In 2020 and 2021, after early eliminations from the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Copa América, hatred and grief had turned into resignation. Hopes and dreams had faded – until another Copa América arrived and moved forward without fans in Brazil amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Messi guided his team through the relocated and postponed 2021 tournament, back in Argentina, a tentative optimism resurfaced.

And within the national team bubble – more than 45 days separated from families and the outside world – a unity and trust formed.

Messi exploited both by bringing his teammates together in a final meeting in the locker room before the final. He had scored or assisted nine of their 11 goals along the way; now it was time for the quiet kid from Rosario to lead with his voice. Messi leaned down and delivered a rousing pre-match speech.

Two hours later, he fell to his knees and burst into tears as the referee’s whistle sealed the 1-0 victory over Brazil. Dozens of teammates rushed towards him and enveloped him. A few minutes later, they hoisted it into the air.

“It was like a dream, a spectacular moment,” Messi said. “I was gone. I couldn’t believe this had happened.”

When they finally got to celebrate in a packed Monumental Nuñez Stadium – after Messi scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Bolivia – his eyes welled up again of tears as adoring fans chanted his name.

It was, he would later say in a documentary retracing the course of the Argentine championship, “the most beautiful thing that happened to me in my sporting career”.

Argentina players lift captain Lionel Messi into the air after winning the Copa América final in Brazil in 2021. (MB Media/Getty Images) (MB Media via Getty Images)

The Copa América title conquered the demons in Argentina. This helped maintain a 36-match unbeaten run that the national team took to Qatar. This inspired “Muchachos”, the fan-written song that became Argentina’s unofficial anthem in 2022. Fans across the country and around the world sang “the final we lost” and “how many years I cried.” But it’s over,” they repeated. “Because at the Maracanã, in the final against the BrazucasDad started beating them again.

And then, “guys,” “muchaaaaachooooos,” they roared – “now we’re dreaming again.”

The title also “makes us feel more relaxed,” Messi said on the eve of the World Cup. “We are calmer, which allows us to work differently, without anxiety. »

And then, of course, they tripped. They lost their first match 2-1 against Saudi Arabia. They left the field, dazed. Messi sat in front of his locker, like 46 million compatriots, his shirtless shoulders slumped, stunned. Gloom followed the Lusail players to base camp, and at dinner they “couldn’t talk”, midfielder Rodrigo De Paul later said. “We couldn’t find the right words.”

But when they “found themselves in a room, discussing everything”, De Paul continued, among the shocked faces he looked at Messi’s and felt reassured.

“I know him,” De Paul said in a documentary interview. “I know when he’s doing well and when he’s not. And he was fine.

Messi was calm, others confirmed; all they had to do was follow their captain’s lead.

Four days later, he saved them with a cathartic goal against Mexico. And from there, for weeks, from the fields to the dormitories, that of Messi tranquility never hesitated. In the grounds of Qatar University, with the walls covered with images of celebrations of the Copa América victory, he seemed light and focused. He was playing cards and a game of foosball. He sipped mate. Ahead of a titanic quarter-final clash with the Netherlands, he joined the recently retired Agüero on a laughter-filled Twitch stream.

And then, naturally, he unlocked the Dutch with a celestial pass; he exuded composure as he converted two penalties. He taunted his helpless adversaries. He called their attacker “Bobo.” He smiled as he left.

“You see Leo’s happiness,” Argentine great Jorge Valdano told the Guardian that week. “He is free.”

In the semi-final and final, he summoned more magic, the same magic that pressure once polluted. He won the World Cup, his World Cup, and rode off into the proverbial sunset.

The triumph cemented him as a GOAT, and also as a changed man. It gave him even more “peace of mind,” he said months later, “knowing that in my job I could achieve anything.”

It also changed his outlook on the later stages of his career. Messi previously said the 2022 World Cup would “surely” be his last, but he now appears to be reconsidering his decision. He will soon lead Argentina to another Copa América, his seventh but the first since the pressure is off. Now that he’s free, he seems determined to savor every second of it. And then?

“Time will tell if I will be at the (2026) World Cup or not,” Messi said last year, and reiterated it this month.

He prefers to avoid “thinking two or three years ahead”, so glorious is the present; because his teammates are so awesome; and because football is so much fun.

“He is very calm,” said defender Lisandro Martinez. “More than anything, he enjoys everyday life.”

“After suffering for so many years,” Messi said, “now that we are living a special moment that I have never experienced before, I want to make the most of it.”

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